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13 Nov 2002 : Column 84—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The average length of speeches from the Back Benches is now running at about 22 minutes. Unless it reduces, not everyone who is seeking to catch my eye will be fortunate this day.

7.34 pm

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), whose speeches are always thoughtful, sometimes provocative and always combined with a caring persona.

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May I have permission to make an apology to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker? During the Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) last Wednesday, I made an intervention and failed to declare a registered interest that I feel that I should have declared. The very next morning I wrote to the Speaker's Office, and sought advice. Apparently, there is no procedure for making an apology in those circumstances. Although my apology is short, it is none the less sincere for that.

I preface my remarks on the Government's programme by saying that it would be extremely helpful if Back-Bench Members could have some understanding of whether the convention of not trailing the Budget also applies to the Queen's Speech. I make no particular complaint at this point, except that it does pretty well hose off Back-Bench Members when everything is spread out over the weekend's papers and we have had little or no briefing on the subject matter that might well form the core of the Queen's Speech. I hope that Ministers will convey that message. It would be helpful for us to know, one way or the other. Either it is a free market or there is a properly organised and recognised convention that we do not have all that material trailed in the media in the weekend before the speech—sometimes earlier.

The Queen's Speech mentioned some initiatives that I should particularly like to see come to fruition as legislation in the coming year. Housing has already occupied some of Members' time this afternoon—more specifically, the idea that we may have a seller's pack. I hope that there will also be a recognition that the age-old practice of gazumping has returned and that it needs to be addressed, perhaps in the way that Scottish law does. It is a dreadful experience when people who believe that they have a deal, in many cases for their very first home, discover a few days—even hours—later that they have been gazumped, to use the terminology, and are no longer able to purchase the house that they felt was theirs. When we scrutinise the draft Bill for housing, we should spend some time considering how we might prevent that phenomenon of some years back from reappearing ever again on the English housing scene, and hopefully match the experience of Scottish buyers.

I welcome the proposed reductions in business rates—in some cases, I understand, of up to 50 per cent.—for small companies. As I have a particular interest in small businesses, I am anxious to see what that Bill brings in its substantive form, but I believe that this will be a welcome measure, should we bring it to fruition.

The licensing Bill brings some sense and reason to a difficult and confused matter, but I stress especially strongly the need to recognise that public houses and other licensed premises in urban areas can cause more trouble than they will ever be worth, in the form of the nuisance caused by some of their customers leaving the public house not just at closing time but at other hours during the evening. We should welcome rationalisation of the legislation, but we need to pay keen attention to the effects that it may have on our communities.

I note with disappointment that, despite the need to revisit workers' legislation, there is no proposal so far to look again at the question of companies confiding in their work force when redundancies are looming. Very often, we read in the press about redundancies to be made in our constituencies without the workers

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concerned having been informed. That is exceedingly distressing for people who are made redundant, and, even for those who are part of a large company, not knowing who is to be made redundant is extremely stressful. I hope that we will revisit the question of rights at work, and recognise the importance of consulting with workers, not just on redundancy or bad news but on the aspirations for the company. That will bring the best out of our work force and aid the development of our economy—on which we all depend—the fruits of which we all hope to share.

On education, I am concerned that we may be moving towards seeing the end of the liberal post-war consensus on the way forward in secondary education. That process is presented to us as the opportunity, through choice, for diversity. Another way of describing that—from what I understand, read and try to absorb in discussions—is atomisation. That involves special schools, religious schools, city colleges, academies, and specialising in particular matters. If a school specialises—perhaps in a science or an art—it needs specialist teachers. If a specialist teacher is put in a particular school, however, that robs another school of the opportunity of learning and taking advantage of what that teacher has to offer.

The argument that was always used in the Labour party about grammar schools applies equally in this regard: if all the academically brightest children at the age of 11 are put in one, two or three schools in a borough, it is likely that teachers who specialise in A-level studies will be attracted to those schools, and will not therefore teach in secondary modern schools. We cannot claim to have had a comprehensive education system in England while we have had selection at 11, and, in some places, at 13. That simply does not work.

Before we go further down this road, I want to see some research, using enumeration districts, on where the achievers are. Instead of finding that grammar schools come near the top in terms of school results, we would find very different results by looking at where the boys and girls who end up at grammar schools come from. We would find a concentration in one school to the detriment of other schools. That is not the way forward for a modern nation. It was tried in the 19th century, and was reinforced by the Haddow report in the 20th century, and the so-called three-legged approach to education: the grammar school, the technical school and the secondary school. Is that different from what a famous philosopher referred to as men of gold, silver, lead? I think not. Exactly the same philosophy has brought us to the idea of having specialist schools that excel in one subject. What will that demonstrate about the quality and the breadth of the education being offered to young people who are to be part of making Britain strong and developing our economy in the 21st century? That is a considerable problem.

It is well known that, despite the sad efforts of a particular adviser, the Department for Education and Skills is aghast at the idea of bringing more religious schools on-stream. I am not knocking existing religious schools, but adding to them would replicate in our communities the problem that exists in Northern Ireland, where one religious group is deliberately separated from another. How are young people to grow up to respect one another in that way? A saddo—I

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cannot describe him as anything else—has put forward the idea, and I do not believe that the Department has any time for it at all. The quicker that it is dropped the better. We need proper high-quality education for all our young people. That is what they deserve, and that is what they ought to get.

I understand that we are bringing forward plans to widen access to universities, and I wonder whether I may interpret the idea of wider access differently. It may be a guise under which we introduce a more elitist system with top-up fees. I make no apologise for returning to this issue, as I do not believe in it. It is common sense that those who aspire to and get a good education get a good job and pay more tax. That is right and how it should be. I do not mind if all of those people—100,000 or so—paid a little more tax. That might reflect the needs of the universities a little better, and I accept that the universities need more money and that more young people should be able to develop their education to the point at which they make a bigger and better contribution to the economy and to the development of the nation.

The way to do that, however, is not to say to those who have, XYou shall have more." The fact is that those who have money to spend—perhaps 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 people—on that kind of education will flock towards those institutions where they think that their children will get a better education than otherwise, and they will pay for it. Those universities will attract more resources, which will widen the gap again. The way for any party in a modern democracy to meet its education needs is to pay for them directly by taxation, and to reclaim that tax in the lifetime of all of us go to work, with those of us who earn most paying most. That is the modern way, not the old-fashioned way.

The Government secured the passage of the Enterprise Act 2002 at the last gasp in the previous Session, which was an important milestone. The hon. Member for Banbury, who is no longer in his place, asked if anything would make a difference, and I believe that the Enterprise Act will do so. More importantly, there may be time, even in this Session, to pass a new Companies Act. There is little question that a great deal of rationalisation is needed. If Members can see it this way, the Enterprise Act is about the big picture, prosperity and bringing forward new ideas and innovation, whereas a Companies Act deals with the little picture—the micro side. It is important that companies are not prevented from developing products and being entrepreneurial by company law that is out of date—a great deal of it dates back to the 19th century, and there has been no substantive modernisation of company law for many years. Bits and pieces have been added here and there, but that merely adds to the volume without providing clarity and cohesion in an area of law that is vital to the prosperity of this country.

A White Paper has been issued, and there has been much consultation in recent months, but I want to pick up on one issue: submitting accounts for small and medium-sized companies. Companies have the right to submit abbreviated accounts. That amounts to a statement, a balance sheet, the accounting policies followed and conventions met. There are also full accounts if companies want them. If they need to go to

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a bank or anywhere else for money, they will need to show that the company is sound in wind and limb and that everything is above board and going well.

If the full accounts have to be lodged, however, many small companies, with perhaps just two directors, will have to disclose salaries. People may say, XSo what?", but people rightly have hang-ups about disclosing their salaries. Why do we need to know directors' salaries? If by way of the taxation system they have rendered to Caesar that which is Caesar's, what more do we or the taxman need to know? We certainly do not need to know how much directors in micro limited companies pay themselves.

More dangerously, such a disclosure would show a company how much of its business makes up the total business of a smaller company, so enabling it to put pressure on that company. If a company buys 50 per cent. of all its production from another company, that knowledge puts someone in a strong position to turn the screw to push prices down. It would be possible to make life pretty damned hard for a small company that is perhaps aspiring to be a bigger company. It could be strangled almost at birth. There is good reason not to deprive small and medium-sized companies of the right to submit abbreviated accounts. All that small companies need to produce is a balance sheet, profit and loss and a statement of accounting policies. That is quite sufficient.

Interest is chargeable on bad debts, but no one claims it. If someone says to a company, XLook. Three months have elapsed. You promised to pay in 30 days and I am entitled to charge you interest", a buyer at a larger company will say, XOh, sure, we will pay. By the way, you need not bother putting in any tenders or estimates for further work. But we've enjoyed your company. Thank you very much. Off you go." A better way—I have proposed this before—is to put a kitemark on the accounts of large companies and to show the average number of days they take to pay their debts. If small companies know that a company pays in 30, 60 or 90 days, at least they know what they are getting into. That would be far better than the right to claim interest, which no one ever does because they know that it is on pain of never getting another job from that company. People who have worked in industry or run businesses know that what I am saying is true, and I hope that the Government listen to my suggestion.

Finally, whatever we do in this Session, it will have the benefit of the House of Commons reforms which were pioneered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I commend them to hon. Members.

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